To 3D, or not to 3D? That was James Cameron's question. Ubisoft Montreal's answer, with James Cameron's Avatar: The Game on Wii (try saying that three times while swinging your hips on the Balance Board) was, predictably, "not to 3D". Instead, we've got the video game disease that is waggling.
As long-suffering Wii-owners know, waggling is, most of the time, awful. And so it is here. Why do developers insist on forcing horrible waggling on us? In this pretty but basic third-person action game, in which you play a blue-skinned Na'vi hell bent on ridding the planet of Pandora of unwelcome Newcomers, waggling is both woeful and frustrating.
To attack with your big stick - your only melee weapon - you need to swing the Wii Remote; horizontally for a horizontal attack, or vertically for a vertical attack. There is a rudimentary combo system hidden underneath these two basic moves, but it's impossible to master, so unresponsive and inaccurate is the combat. You spend more time wafting the stick at thin air, like a deranged pensioner waving away spitting youths with a cane, than you do feeling like the double-hard alien warrior you should. This, combined with a maddening camera and a quick roll that insults the word "quick", makes for battles of the pull-your-hair-out kind.
You also have a bow, drawn by holding B. This zooms the camera in to a closer, over the shoulder perspective, and brings up a targeting reticule. It works okay. You need to move the reticule onto the target with the Wii Remote and keep it there, waiting for it to turn red so you can guarantee a one-hit kill with a press of the A button. But, like the melee combat, using the bow and arrow is monstrously frustrating. For some reason you can't move the camera when you have an enemy targeted (by holding down the Z button on the Nunchuck), and bow drawn. This means when you're trying to hit enemies on raised platforms, or even those positioned slightly above you, they're stuck right up at the top of the screen and are virtually impossible to hit. Gah.
Thankfully, the game is designed so that you don't have to get into combat if you don't want to. As a Na'vi, you're taller and stronger than your human enemies, but because you're massively outnumbered, you need to tread carefully. Pandora is your planet, and so the environment seems to be going out of its way to conceal you. This means stealth. Now, the stealth gameplay is occasionally - and I mean occasionally in its most occasional sense - quite good. When you detect machine gun-toting goons from the Resource Development Administration (RDA), you automatically crouch and slowly creep around. Tall grass, high-up areas and water keep you concealed; the idea is to stay hidden until you're behind your target, and to then press B for a stealth attack, when the game prompts you. If you do, you need to nail a quick time event, usually a downward swing of the Wii Remote, and Bob's your alien uncle.
It all works well enough when there aren't that many enemies about. Skulking about in the bushes, or in water, or on raised platforms, then swooping down for devastating one hit kills... you feel like the Predator in these situations, picking off dopey humans like Batman gone blue. But when you go up against more than a handful of goons, with snipers and turrets and laser tripwires that set off alarms and call in reinforcements, the stealth gameplay falls down like badly-animated house of cards. The problem is the crouch walk; you have no control over it, and it turns on and off like a possessed tap. You can tell the game's trying to make stealth easy for you, forcing you to crouch and hide when it thinks you need to, but you just end up feeling constrained.
And the jarheads of the RDA are dumb - mega dumb. If they spot you, they will pelt you with machine gun, RPG or sniper fire. But if you dive back into cover - say, long grass - they will quickly lose interest and go back to their dumb ways. Metal Gear Solid this is not.
The levels (there are 13, and I completed them all in less than five hours on the normal difficulty) come in two types: the stealthy third-person action described above, and on-rails flying. Unfortunately, the flying levels are even worse than the on-foot ones. Here, you ride a griffon-type beast by moving the Nunchuck and fire explosive arrows by aiming a targeting reticule with the Remote. The controls, again, suffer from relying too much on waggling: the Nunchuck drives with as much responsiveness and control as a drunken elephant, and all you're really trying to do is hit mines with arrows. Occasionally, an RDA craft drops in for some attention: here, you need to whittle down its health, avoid machine gun fire and then quick time event it into oblivion. You're able to play these flying levels using the Wii Balance Board, but I can't see why you'd want to; it's even more unresponsive.
The game supports the Wii MotionPlus, but this doesn't improve the waggling. It only, strangely, adds the ability to control fire wasps found in certain areas of a level. Movement of these creatures is governed by pointing with the Remote, the idea being to scout and temporarily stun soldiers with a sting attack. But, like the Balance Board support, the game's MotionPlus support is pointless, and adds little to the experience.
Avatar: The Game's true failing, however, is not its frustrating combat or flying, but the sheer repetitiveness of the gameplay. Ubisoft Montreal had two ideas, stealth and flying, which is fine, but the challenge is repeated over and over again. It's quite astonishing, really. The on-foot levels are all the same: a bit of platforming, climbing, vaulting, jumping, zip lining, all basic and linear, as you make your way to an RDA compound. Then it's a case of trying to avoid detection as you pick each soldier off. Then, maybe, at the end of the level, you go up against an uninspiring boss fight. It is a path repeatedly walked, and becomes well worn after about an hour.
The flying levels are all the same, too: fly, shoot mines and take down an RDA craft with a QTE. Rinse and repeat. Even as I neared the end of the game, I hoped it would throw something new at me, but it didn't. To cap it all off, the final boss battle is one of the worst in recent memory. It further exposes the game's combat failings, if indeed they needed any more exposure by that point.
It's not as if there's an intriguing plot to motivate you to soldier through, either. Nothing is explained. Some online research tells me the game is set before the events of the upcoming film, and is separate to the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions. 20,000 years of peace have come to an end: You play the last of a noble clan whose totemic animal was the deadliest land predator known to the People - the thanator. Years ago the Newcomers destroyed his home and stripped his clan of their sacred artefacts. The warrior has waited for years, but now is the time to take the artefacts back. Each level is preceded by a wall of text - a lazy narrative device at the best of times. Conrad - the man in charge of the RDA in the area - merely exists; we're told nothing of his motivations or background. Sean, another soldier character, is totally out of control, although Conrad insists to his concerned boss that this isn't the case. Your alien doesn't like Sean or Conrad. Sigourney Weaver turns up. There you go, that's about it.
Avatar: The Game's only redeeming features are its impressive graphics and the fact that it offers something different to the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions. The latter, though, isn't much of a redeeming feature - it's just something we're not used to with Wii versions of multiplatform games. But, credit where credit's due - the graphics are great. Pandora's jungle environment has been impressively brought to life on the power-starved Wii. It's lush, with ambient sound that does a convincing job of making the environment feel alive. The flying levels look particularly good, and the vistas are genuinely stunning for the Wii. It's just a shame that Avatar: The Game is better watched than played.
Indeed it's a crying shame, because if you were able to map the various actions to button presses the entire game would be vastly improved (why can't I fly with the Nunchuck analogue stick?), while the stealth gameplay occasionally shows glimpses of what could have been. What has been, unfortunately, is yet another disappointing movie tie-in.